Trade-Unions and the Individual Worker

As we walk the streets of the City of the Dinner-Pail, enter its factories and visit the homes of its people, — the homes alike of those who buy and those who sell labor, — we may observe in the varied life about us every phase of the labor problem, which, when viewed in the larger field of the nation, appears so complicated to the average citizen that he despairs of understanding it. If we were to study ever so casually the history of the great industry which gives the city its distinction, we should discover the source of many perplexing social questions which, in America, tend to separate class from class in a manner singularly at variance with the ideals of the Republic.

In the early days of the last century, the wives of farmers who tilled the fields now traversed by the city streets sat before the spinning-wheel and hand-loom, after the work upon the farm was done, and wove the cloth from which their gowns were made; they wove linen, too, from flax grown upon their own land; and even the woolen clothes the farmer wore were the product of household industry. It is not difficult to imagine the interest of these farmer-folk in the first factory which was built upon the stream; their refusal to believe that a water-wheel might be made of sufficient power to operate so great a plant as that first factory, which in size would not serve as an engine-room for a modern spinning-mill; their wonder as they watched the imported machinery, producing more yarn in a day than a thousand hands might make on spinningwheels during a long winter. We can imagine, too, how eagerly the sons and daughters of the farmers sought work in the new factory, and the pride they took in receiving their wages, paid in money and exchangeable at the village store for stylish foreign fabrics such as no farmer’s wife could ever weave.

That successful first mill was followed by another and another, each indeed small, but each somewhat larger and better equipped than those that went before, and all operated by native help, with now and then a foreign worker of Irish or English birth. More factories were built, and foreigners came in great numbers to operate the machinery; but the transition from native help was so gradual that the citizens did not realize how social classes were forming in this democratic community. The newly-built Roman Catholic church gave the Protestants something of a shudder, especially when its communicants celebrated Christmas; and the puritanical proprietors, who had not learned to exchange gifts in memory of our Saviour’s birth, complained because the Irish refused to work on the 25th of December. Here was the first suggestion of conflicting social ideals.

The immigrants, however, had no part in the event which made evident the growth of class consciousness in the City of the Dinner-Pail; that occurred in a Baptist meeting-house, and among Christian folk of the same denomination. A bill had been introduced in the state legislature limiting the hours of factory labor to ten a day, and agitation in favor of its adoption ran high. On the farm the day began at no particular hour, nor was there any stated time when work was ended; and a man was paid for a day’s labor without regard to the length of it. Some, however, saw a distinction between farm and factory labor, and among these was the minister of the Baptist church. One Sunday at the hour of service, the congregation, in which mill-owners and operatives sat side by side, was thrown into great excitement by the pastor, who preached a sermon advocating the tenhour bill; and when his hearers filed out of the meeting-house that morning, they were no longer a united body. The man who sold labor continued to listen to the preaching of the ten-hour parson; but the man who bought labor built for himself another meeting-house; and soon afterwards the first labor-union was formed. The same causes which had been silently at work for years to create discord in the Baptist flock, had at the same time been in operation in the factory, gradually separating the employer and employé in their personal relations, until at last it seemed that their interests were no longer common, and the future success of each must be to the disadvantage of the other. So industrial warfare took the place of mutual goodwill, and more than half a century passed before the contending factions began to see the folly of their antagonism.

The development of unionism was as natural as the development of the factory system, which made the association of workers necessary. So long as factory owners and factory operatives worked side by side in the shop; so long as the man who bought and the man who sold labor belonged to the same social class; so long as close personal relations existed between master and man, there was no need for organized labor; but when, in the complicated development of the factory system, the employer, once associated in business with the employé, found in the management of the concern his sole occupation, and became separated from the workman by a hierarchy of foremen and overseers,— the personal relation between the buyer and the seller of labor being lost, — it came about quite naturally that the workman combined his efforts with the efforts of others of his class, in order to command collectively that consideration from the employer which each employé had received individually in the earlier stages of the factory system. First, the men in separate shops talked over their common interests in friendly discussions while at their work; later they continued these discussions in the evening at an appointed meeting-place — and the local tradeunion was born. With the growth of class consciousness, local federations of labor followed, recognizing the common interests of all hand-workers in the community; and these federations, in their turn, became united in a national labor movement, in which the welfare of the individual was subordinated to the welfare of the toilers as a class.

In administrative principles the national labor movement has shown two divergent tendencies : the Knights of Labor sought to establish a strong central body, the object being to unite in a single organization all the workingmen of the nation; while the American Federation of Labor, subsequently organized, has endeavored to keep all legislative power in the hands of the several crafts — the Federation being little more than an advisory centre. This plan, recognizing in a larger measure the value of the individual, has been the more successful; for since the year 1886, when the Knights of Labor numbered over seven hundred thousand members, that body has rapidly declined in numbers and power, while the American Federation has steadily increased in influence, and to-day possesses all the machinery necessary to achieve the end for which it was created, — namely, to emphasize the human element which is attached to labor as a commodity.

How well adapted to its purpose this machinery is, those who follow the events in the labor-world are well aware. We see how the demands for higher wages, for shorter hours, for more favorable factory conditions, have been enforced: sometimes by actual strike, more often by the mere threat on the part of the unions to call out their members. When we come to study the history of labor-unions we find that the part which the movement has played in the social progress of the toiler is greater than at first appears. The reform laws passed by the British Parliament in the last century had their beginning in the class-consciousness which arose in the manufacturing cities, following the establishment of the factory system. The first of these acts legalized combinations of workingmen, and thus liberated a force which was felt in later legislation having for its object the amelioration of the social condition of the toilers. “ Mercy by Statute ” — Lord Ashley’s phrase to describe the British Factory Acts, made law through his devoted struggle for the cause of labor — was due in no small measure to the rise of trade-unionism.

As early as 1833 laws were passed to regulate the labor of children and young persons in the textile factories of the United Kingdom; but it was nearly ten years later before public attention was called to the pitiable condition of a class of juvenile workers which exceeded tenfold in number those engaged in the textile industries; and the reason for this delay is to be found in the fact that bleacheries and print-works, papermills, establishments for the manufacture of glass and earthenware, pins and needles, buttons, and a hundred like commodities, were not conducted on the great scale of the textile plants, nor were these industries confined to manufacturing cities populated by men and women with common industrial and social interests. The children thus employed were neglected longer than the others, because there were no agitators to plead their cause, and no vast body of discontented workers clamoring for the amelioration of their social condition. From the year 1824, when Parliament repealed the Combination Laws, to the Trade Disputes Act in 1906, the weapon of the British workingman in obtaining legislative benefits has been agitation through unionism.

The first labor agitators in the City of the Dinner-Pail were English operatives of the same stock as the men who, a generation before, lighted the torch of individual freedom in Lancashire, and, despised by the governing classes, meeting secretly as outlaws, compelled a reluctant Parliament to give heed to the rights of labor, and in the end to grant schools and the franchise to the children of toil. While in America trade-unionism had no such mighty task to accomplish, political equality being already established, the conditions of the factory system made the movement a necessary one, and it would be idle to deny the influence of organized labor in shaping the course of legislative enactment.

Granting, then, that organized labor is possessed of the machinery necessary to obtain its object, and that this object is altogether admirable, being nothing less than winning from the industrial régime a recognition of the dignity of the laborer as a man, unionism should merit the unfaltering loyalty of every toiler. Many workingmen, however, and among them some of the most intelligent, are opposed to organized labor, and on the very ground that it detracts something from the dignity of the individual. There is evidently some phase of the movement which we have overlooked.

So far as organized labor has been successful in emphasizing the distinction between labor and the laborer, the commodity and the man who sells the commodity, and has replaced the personal relation which once existed between the employer and the employé with an equitable régime of collective bargaining, unionism has been an untold blessing to the toiling millions — a blessing alike to skilled and unskilled labor. There is, however, another side to the shield. Unionism came into being to emphasize the dignity of the laborer as a man —it resulted from a highly organized industrial system, in which the individual played an insignificant part. Then unionism, in turn, became highly organized, so that to-day its chief danger is not to the employer, but to the employé, and lies in the direction of the evil which it was established to overcome. The object of unionism is to assert the dignity of the individual worker as a man; and while, by the very act of combination, the laborer surrenders his will to that of the majority, he does it for the sake of demanding from the factory system a recognition of his personality; that, besides being one little wheel in the vast industrial machine, he may be a man as well.

Important as the benefits of unionism have been, we are, nevertheless, apt to over-emphasize them, and to forget that the movement is but one phase of the progress which the mass of mankind is still making toward the full consciousness of freedom. The value of unionism is in the loyalty of its members, not to an organization merely, but to the inclusive cause of labor. “ Loyalty,” says Josiah Royce, “ is the Will to Believe in something eternal, and to express that belief in the practical life of a human being.” Now, the cause of labor, uniting in itself the lives of all the workers, is an eternal cause; its object is to advance the consciousness of human freedom among the masses — and unionism is but one means by which loyalty to this cause may be expressed. The moment, therefore, that unionism demands of its members loyalty to an organization which exists only as a means of furthering an eternal cause, this narrow loyalty becomes a menace to every worker whose name is not enrolled upon the union lists; when it entails a disregard of duties which each man owes to every other fellow man, unionism ceases to advance the cause of labor, and becomes instead a hindrance.

That unionism is often unmindful of the inclusive cause of labor is illustrated by the policy of a minimum wage. The intent of this policy is, of course, favorable to the cause of labor, in that it aims to raise the standard of wages; but in the present stage of our industrial development the policy fails to accomplish this result; for a minimum wage is usually determined by the average ability of all the workers in any shop adopting the plan, and the employer, forced to pay the uniform rate to workers incapable of earning it, finds it necessary, in order that his cost of production shall not exceed that of his competitors, to withhold from many superior workmen a rate of wages higher than the minimum, which otherwise they might receive. Thus the minimum wage tends to become a common wage, the unearned increase granted the incapable workers being paid from the earnings of their more efficient shopmates. The policy, therefore, is sharply antagonistic to the development of efficiency in the individual worker; it stunts his growth as a man by setting a limit to his ambition; it assumes equal efficiency among all the members of any craft, and by placing equal value upon an hour’s labor without regard to the quality of it, destroys the reward of ambition.

A fact too frequently neglected in considering the relation of trade-unionism to the individual worker is that there are distinct classes even among wage-workers. First, we have the vast army of unskilled labor, constantly recruited from the swarm of immigrants who daily pass the inspectors at Ellis Island; wanderers from the Old World, who have never learned a trade, come to take their places in our industrial order as common laborers. As we review the army, our first thought is one of fear for the permanence of a state which so freely harbors this uncouth and unschooled throng, and we sympathize for the moment with those labor leaders who look askance at the newcomers, seeing in their presence here a degrading influence upon American labor. But if we look more searchingly into the faces of this eager throng passing with high hopes through the gateway of the New World, our fears will be dispelled, for immigration calls for courage and every other personal quality which makes for social progress; they have left their old homes in quest of a more favorable environment for individual growth; in America they find that environment, and thousands of them make the most of it.

The immigrant, on his arrival in America without a trade, in most cases without even a knowledge of the language, frequently the victim of unscrupulous men who seek to exploit his labor, begins work at a disadvantage, and at a wage approximating the meagre income to which he was accustomed in the Old World. Many employers will say that to pay him higher wages is to make him indolent, and there is a foundation for the statement. At home his whole life has been a battle for mere existence, there was no margin of wages to be saved, and quite naturally, when, in the New World, he earns a wage sufficient to provide food, clothes, and shelter, and have a penny beside, he does not save this penny, but spends it to buy immunity from toil. After a time, however, he becomes acquainted with men and women of his own race who are no longer strangers in the New World; he visits them in their homes, and finds that the floors are carpeted, that the children go to school and wear clean frocks, that the table is served with meat and fresh vegetables; then he begins to note a difference between life in the Old World and the New, and he desires the luxuries his friends enjoy. He begins to look beyond to-day and becomes ambitious for the future. Soon his children go welldressed to school and return to a wellkept home; the immigrant has entered the second class of labor, the characteristic of which is thrift.

There is a higher class of labor, and one of vast importance in the evolution by which the worker of to-day becomes the employer of to-morrow: it consists of those who not only are ambitious for their own success and the success of their children, but who look beyond the payenvelope even, and find happiness in work well done. A machinist recently died in the City of the Dinner-Pail who for nearly half a century had been in the employ of one corporation: year after year he worked at the same lathe until its very ways of hardened steel were worn beyond further service; and in all that time his interest in the affairs of the shop could have been no greater had he himself been sole proprietor. Sometimes he bought tools with his own money, to facilitate his work, and he refused to charge many an hour of overtime because the labor had not been exacted of him; he looked upon his trade as a fine art, and took the same joy in a perfected mechanism that the painter takes in his finished picture. While this machinist was, no doubt, an exception, there are many workmen who work with the same joy of service; and when, in addition to their love of labor and knowledge of their trade, they have executive ability as well, these men leave behind them the bench and lathe, and become themselves employers of labor.

Because the workers are divided into these and many more classes, the attempt of unionism to create an average craftsman, and then set its machinery at work in his interest, is directly hostile to the development of the individual. It may be quite true, as the socialist contends, that we should take even greater care to improve the social organism, of which we are a part, than to perfect our own individual growth; and that the perfect development of each individual is not the highest development of his own personality, but learning to fill, in the best possible way, his own little place in the social world. This is the old question of the one and the many, which has given philosophers in every field of thought no end of trouble, for the reason that neither ideal is alone sufficient. Like the citizens of a state, the union workers are united by a common interest into an organized community; but just as, in the state, each individual relinquishes only the right to do those things which hamper his own physical and moral growth, — and thus the physical and moral growth of the community, — and relinquishes nothing which makes for a higher individual and consequently a higher social attainment, so the worker, by his act of association with his fellows, does not sacrifice his right to a well-rounded individual development.

Not long ago the King of England touched with his sword the shoulder of a working mason, who knelt before him, and said, “ Arise, Sir William Crossman.” A man was raised to the honor of knighthood in a country where little more than a generation ago his espousal of the labor cause would have brought him before the law courts on the charge of conspiracy. Surely unionism has served with power the progress of human freedom. It is possible that the movement may still serve, and with increasing power, the progress of mankind; but to-day there may be observed elements of danger to this free service. The average citizen has an interest in this matter, and should study the facts with care. The value of unionism has ever consisted in the emphasis it has placed on the dignity of the individual; to preserve its usefulness in advancing the welfare of the workman, unionism must hold fast to this purpose.

There was once a time when the glory of a state was told in the chronicles of its wars; the soldier was then the hero, and physical prowess the measure of his greatness ; the soldier indeed was king, and the king the state. True, there were craftsmen in those days, but few in number compared with the soldiers; and there were husbandmen, who tilled the soil that the women and priests might not starve, and that a great feast should be spread when the lord of the castle rode back victorious from the wars. But with the rise of Democracy the position of the craftsman and the husbandman, the workers of the world, was vastly changed; the worker became the important person, while the soldier was tolerated only to protect, him in his industry. And the history of the state since the dawn of the new doctrine has been dominated by the progress of the workingman.

Slowly, throughout the centuries, the consciousness of freedom had been developing in the minds of men. Magna Charta, while containing many benefits for the people, was in no sense a declaration of freedom; the Barons planted the seed merely, seed which for five hundred years slowly matured, until the industrial revolution, which occurred but a century ago, made possible the ripening of the fruit in our own generation. With the industrial revolution came the factory, and about the factory the city sprang up, populated by a people whose interests were identical. Great cities already existed, but they were peopled by men and women occupied with divers activities; in the factory-towns a single occupation gave a livelihood to thousands, leading these thousands to unite their efforts for the advancement of their condition, which in the end made for the progress of human freedom throughout the world.

The advent of the factory in England, however, created, at first, a reign of great misery among the workers. Not even the galley slaves in the ancient world suffered in mind and body the tortures which were the daily life of the early factory operatives. In Manchester, when the ten-hour law was first agitated, onehalf the population sought public charity in bringing their children into the world, and of these children less than one-half lived until their fifth year. The survivors, at the age of seven, began to work in the factories, thousands of them slaving under cruel taskmasters, who used the lash without mercy throughout the fourteen hours of daily toil; the factory became the plague-spot of immorality, concerning which we have many a painful contemporary record. “ Fathers have sworn to it,” says The Chronicle, “ and wished they had been childless.” As we walk the streets of the City of the Dinner-Pail and mingle with the self-respecting throng of quiet-mannered, neatly dressed mill girls; or enter its factories, where no children under fourteen years of age may be allowed to work; as we visit the homes of the operatives, and note in how great a measure happiness or misery depends upon individual thrift, we marvel at the progress wrought by the last century in the social condition of the workingmen.

Just as the women spun cotton, wool, and flax, on the farms where now stand the great factories of the City of the Dinner-Pail, so for centuries before the invention of Arkwright, the British craftsmen made the textile fabrics of a nation upon spinning-wheels and hand-looms in their own homes. When the factories were built, this vast company of workers was thrown upon the world without gainful employment. Some were taught to operate the machinery within the factory walls, but thousands were unable to learn a new trade, and the condition of these was so deplorable that years afterward, when the conscience of the nation would no longer permit half-naked women and children to do the work of beasts of burden in the dark caverns of the coal-mines, these hand-loom weavers hailed the event with joy, and gladly offered themselves for this brutalizing employment. It is small wonder, then, that the labor movement began with violence, and that the craftsmen, dispossessed of their means of livelihood, revenged themselves by breaking machinery and burning factories.

The factory hand produced a hundredfold more yarn and cloth than the craftsman, and the cry of over-production was heard throughout the manufacturing world; wages fell, until a day of toil bought but another day of greater misery, and starvation seemed to be the gift which machinery had brought to the worker. Thus the cause of the dispossessed craftsmen, and that of the operatives who took their places, became one — the cause of labor: the right of men, by virtue of their human birth, to something higher than the lives of beasts, to the creation of a social environment, by legislation if need be, in which the individual might develop his own personality. Then, because it was a crime for workingmen to meet and discuss the evils they endured, unionism was born in secret chambers, from which went forth the agitators who became the pioneers of industrial freedom. What these men accomplished for human progress is recorded in the history of the reform parliaments of the last century; it is recorded, too, in the political history of every civilized nation. In the great movement for the political enfranchisement of the masses, which was the most conspicuous social phenomenon of the last century, organized labor played no insignificant part; and the fundamental ideal which animated this movement was the dignity of the individual, and the right of every man to the fullest possible scope for the development of his own personality.

Those who note the evolution underlying our present civilization are coming to believe with Mr. Benjamin Kidd, who long ago advanced the theory that the people, having been admitted to equal political rights, are next to be admitted to equal social opportunity. It may be that in this next and greater stage of the progress of the masses, trade-unionism is to play no part; that the narrowness of its organization, working in the interest of a select class of workers, may prevent the movement from further advancing the cause of labor. There is much in the present attitude of the organization to give ground for this belief; but those who appreciate the service of unionism in the past still hope that its usefulness is not outworn. The function of unionism has ever been to emphasize the human element which is attached to labor as a commodity, to assist in creating an environment in which the individual toiler may have free scope for the development of his own personality. In the coming social evolution some factor must contribute this function; shall that factor be organized labor ?

If the cause of unionism is made identical with the cause of labor, and thus ministers to the social progress of every workingman, we may believe that tradeunionism still has a work to accomplish; but if the movement is to minister to a class of workingmen only, its usefuluess is already at an end. For the cause of labor is an eternal cause, in which the lives of all the wage-workers are united; and its object is to advance the consciousness of human freedom throughout the world. Such a cause, from its very nature, must guarantee to every workingman that full measure of individual growth which is the priceless gift of freedom. And this right to a well-rounded personal development is no part of a narrow individualism; it does not mean that the individual shall cease to make sacrifices for the welfare of his fellow men, but, rather, that the worker, advancing to a richer personal life, shall come to the knowledge that man, as man, is free, and to a full consciousness of that freedom which is perfect service.